LIVE REVIEW: Skapa Collective ‘Fork ‘n Tune, Cwmcarn (11/02/23)

Cardiff’s Skapa Collective venture up into the valleys to spread their good time vibes.

I take my hat off to anyone trying to put on gigs in the valleys. It is a thankless task. I tried it myself for yeas before opting to promote in Newport. Punk Rock legend Pig has recently given it a go, bringing some cracking punk bands to The Bush Inn, Blaina, but has recently had to call it a day through lack of support.

Vinny (aka Chiska) and Anja in the Cwmcarn Hotel have gone above and beyond. A stage chucked in the corner of a pub this ain’t. Tapping into the talents of artistic mates, the pub has been transformed into a festival stage embedded in bricks and mortar. The beer garden is like an enchanted garden, artwork adorns the walls of the bar and even the toilets are a thing of beauty.

It takes more than a bit of paint and some subtle lighting to make a venue though, and again, the venue stands out from your average pub rock boozer. Dub War, Regime, Captain Accident and Henge are just a few of the contemporary outfits that have trod the Cwmcarn boards. They have managed to sell out on quite a few occasions, but they still have to work for a crowd every week.

There are several factors at play here.

Music fans in the valleys will think nothing of travelling to Cardiff or Newport to catch a good live band. They are used to it. It doesn’t work the other way though, music fans in the city have to be coaxed to come to a gig in the valleys.

You then have to factor in that public transport in the valleys is dire. I’m only a few short miles away from Cwmcarn and have to drive. And people will tend to only do that when they are familiar with the band. With a reasonably well-known band, not so much of a problem, but for local bands it’s a ‘catch twenty-two’ situation. People will only travel if they know the band, but if they don’t travel, they won’t know the band. Word of mouth helps, but when people are living in different valleys, you end up relying on customers that live in the same village. I’m a geek, I do my best to keep my finger on the pulse, but most people are not geeks and need to be spoon fed. There is nothing wrong with not being a geek, but it does make life hard for a promoter.

Tonight, Cardiff’s Skapa Collective are in town. I’m familiar with the band because I know Steve Bick, the front man. We go way back to the last century. He has been sending me their releases as and when they are due out. You can’t get much more word of mouth than that. They have also had some reasonable success with two football related tunes. Well, one football related tune that they changed the words to. They recorded a ska version of Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’ (in English and Welsh) for Euro 2020 and the World Cup 2022. Football tunes can be pretty dire, but the Skapa Collective proved that it is possible to make a decent fist of it.

For those that have not had the advantage of being mates with the band, tonight is a gamble. But fair play, there are a few of the locals, fresh from watching Wales lose to Scotland in the egg chasing, that have handed over their hard earned on the door. The band playing ‘Monkey Man’ during the soundcheck helped. Who doesn’t like a bit of Toots and the Maytals?

Within a few opening bars, the gamble paid off. This nine-piece outfit of experienced musicians know their stuff. They bang out good time, up tempo, skanking ska. Not ska-punk, not Ska-fusion, just plain old-fashioned ska. They have a new album out, ‘Songs about running away’ which features mainly original numbers. And I Ioves it.

They plough through the one about saving Cardiff’s music hub, Womanby Street, from developers; the one about hangovers and the one about turning your telly off. They played the one about running away, the one about the Tories being pants and they played a few cover versions.

There was a huge grin from the brass section to the bass and you could see the band were loving it. And so were the locals. The crowd were also grinning and occasionally getting up for a dance. Sadly, but probably understandably, the tunes that got the most up dancing were the cover versions. Toots and the Maytals, The Selector and – erm – Ken Dodd. Also a ska version of Welsh classic, ‘Sospan Fach’ –  a sure fire winner on rugby international day.

The one that really got people up and dancing was a ska version of the theme tune to the sixties TV show, ‘Batman’ – but with the word ‘Batman’, replaced by ‘Chiska’ in honour of the pub landlord.

It hadn’t been a massive crowd, but as Bick commented, it was their first time at the venue. Hopefully the old black magic of word of mouth will spread and when they come back, the audience will grow. The band deserve it, Cwmcarn deserves it and The Fork ‘n Tune deserve it. Without support, grass roots music venues can very easily go to the wall. Not only is this venue supporting live music, they are supporting quality grass roots music that write and play their own music. Original and interesting music.

But as far as tonight went – in the words of Mr Bick – “We had a gas”.